ITAL 310: Dante in Translation
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Dante in Translation
ITAL 310 - Lecture 23 - Paradise XXX, XXXI, XXXII, XXXIII
Chapter 1. Into the Empyrean [00:00:00]
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: You may recall that last time we went over the shape of Dante’s cosmos, remember. And the point there, one of the points was to show that the context of Dante’s experience, the way he moves, the tale he’s telling about this extraordinary experience he has, is really the whole cosmos. It’s not just one’s own town, one’s own place and so on, it really takes place within the cosmos and we saw how Dante describes that cosmos. He describes it in terms of a physical and a metaphysical principle. That is to say, all the materiality and the spirituality of two hemispheres all placed in one. The Empyrean is the threshold and the limit of the physical cosmos and the way of entering into the spiritual cosmos.
The challenge he has as a poet is that to show the relationship between the finite and the infinite, the way that they are really disjointed and at the same time they are not. The finite universe can only be part of the infinite universe and so he describes how the infinite enters the finite and the finite enters the infinite. This is heart of the cantos of metaphysics which we all call — which we can call the cantos of physics and metaphysics at the same time.
Now, Dante moves straight into the Empyrean, he was in the — you remember into the primo mobile or the crystalline heaven, before that he was in the Heaven of the Fixed Stars XXV, XXVI, XXVII then he moved into the crystalline; now he is into the Empyrean. This is the end of the race for him; it’s the end of the journey. The question will be how he is going to say farewell to Beatrice. There will be a change of the guard. Beatrice — the role of Beatrice as a guide will stop, will end with Canto XXX of Paradise, quite appropriately; it’s suitable; she is the woman tied with the number 30. She appeared in Canto XXX of Purgatorio, stays on the stage of the poem for thirty three cantos and now she’s going to actually disappear. He’ll realize that she has disappeared in Canto XXXI.
But there’s a change of the guard because Dante moves from Beatrice to a contemplative, a historical figure all the time, almost all the time with Dante, Bernard of Clairvaux, who was a famous monk of — French monk who stands for — he has written treatises on contemplation and mystical visions. So appropriately, he’s the one who will usher and pray the Virgin Mary that she may in turn pray her son, it’s a chain of mediations so that the beatific vision may be granted to Dante. That’s going to happen with Canto XXX and we are going to find out the difficulties that Dante has in both seeing, but above all, in recalling and recollecting. The poem will end up with being a sort of registering the defeat, the unavoidable defeat of memory and importance of forgetfulness.
We are going to find in Canto XXXIII a sort of further twist to the metaphor of — you remember in Canto XXXIII of Purgatorio that I mentioned to you what has happening. Dante will go on being immersed ritually into the River Lethe and then into River Eunoe. There are two rivers, one the river of forgetfulness, the one the river of memory, of good memory and Dante goes on saying that they really came — he was at the point where the two streams were really originating from the same source. It as if memory and forgetfulness — first of all, I equate it with water there in Canto XXXIII of Purgatorio implying the lability, the water has that quality of flowing, the fluidity, the ability of both memory and forgetfulness.
The most important thing is that they originated from the same place. It is as if Dante were already preparing what will move now front stage in Paradiso XXXIII, namely the notion of a forgetful memory, and the importance of forgetful memory, you have to forget and you have to remember and somehow the two are going to be brought together. It’s not a mystical proposition that he advances; it’s actually the way of justifying his poem and we’ll come to that in some detail in — when we come to Canto XXXIII.
Chapter 2. Canto XXX: Heavenly Jerusalem; Theatre and Imagination; Simon Magus [00:05:21]
What I would emphasize, though, to move now to Canto XXX, Dante’s entering into the Heavenly Jerusalem which is a garden and it’s a city. It will be described as such, you will see in — well, let’s turn right now to these images — this is really Canto XXX line — a sequence of images lines 32 — I’m sorry 110 and following, page 437, “I saw,” line 112, “I saw, rising above the light all around in more than a thousand tiers, as many of us as have returned there above.” The Heavenly Jerusalem is first of all described as a theatre and we ought to really think about it for a moment, a theatre. “And if the lowest rank,” that’s the image of theatre where you have in an auditorium today, tiers, “encloses within it so great a light, what is the expense of this rose in its farthest petals?”
The second image is that it’s described — to describe this — the Heavenly Jerusalem is the rose, a white rose, a mystical rose. I can tell you immediately that Dante is using the image that this is — it derives straight out of thirteenth-century French poem called, The Romance of the Rose, which Dante had translated as a young man into a sequence of sonnets, part of his experimenting with poetic forms. But it’s also — it’s deeply altered because The Romance of the Rose, which is an extraordinary satirical poem, it’s a compendium of all knowledge, it really has — it deals with — it’s a story of — about nature and about reason. The connections between reason and nature but it’s also a story with a sexual theme.
Dante is clearly taking that language of The Romance of the Rose and literally spiritualizing, reversing it. The resonances of the original poem are still there so that you are forced to think of the Heavenly Jerusalem as also having some kind of materiality within it, so you cannot just say, well I’m taking that image, placing it in a different context, and hope that the original, the residues, the traces of that original image are going to be completely faced. It’s part of the strategy of, once again hinting, intimating that spirituality and materiality now are still going to be converging here. That’s the archaeology, let’s say, of this image of the rose.
This continues, next paragraph, “Into the yellow of the eternal rose, which expends and rises in ranks, and exhales odours of praise to the Sun that makes perpetual spring, Beatrice drew me, as one who is silent and fain would speak, and she said: ‘Behold how great is the assembly of the white robes!’” This is a procession, a theatrical performance of sorts, the whole of paradise is a theatrical performance, and whenever we think of theatre — now, let me just reflect a little bit on this image. Whenever we think of a theatre, we understand that it implies the reduction of the world to a spectacle, that’s what a theatre is. The world is something to be seen, it’s also an optical phenomenon, or a case, to put it in another way, which really does not do any violence on the text, a question of the representation. The world is a representation implying that I become the spectator. I am — it’s their representation for me, I can really watch this world, and see it in its whole totality just as Dante is seeing the whole of the universe, now he can see the whole totality of the blessed. This is the whole of the Heavenly Jerusalem where all the blessed will be sitting, enjoying, acting, and spectating at the same time.
Two or three things that I want to say here; on the one hand, the theatre is an image of multiple perspectives, that’s what a theatre implies. You are sitting there, I’m standing here, multiple perspectives but Dante wants to say that he’s enjoying an overall perspective, what we call a perspective of the whole. He can see the whole of reality. He sees the whole expanse of the horizon of the world. In other words, whatever he’s saying about himself, it partakes of and it belongs to the totality of the world. He’s not seeing something isolated or disconnected with the rest of the world. This is, to him, what legitimizes a claim to be a visionary poet. To be truly a visionary poet, you have to be able to see the whole of a reality, not just like Narcissus your own image, not like someone who is bound to one’s own perspective, one’s own self. He sees the whole of the world and that’s really what I think is the claim or the implications of the image of the theatre.
The text, I think need some glossing, “Behold how great is the assembly of the white robes.” A sense of the magnitude of the spectacle; then, “See our city, how great it is, its circuit.” It has been described a littler earlier as — in terms of a rose and a garden, and now it’s a city, that’s an interesting shift in Dante’s poem. It’s an interesting shift for a number of reasons because the whole poem now appears as literally a journey from the wilderness, not to the garden, but to a city or to a garden which is a city. It is a way of encompassing the whole movement of the poem within these two figures. This is — it is as if the whole impulse behind this experience of Dante is a reintegration into what is it he implies. The place where many other people are as if — I not only seeing the world as a whole, I want to be part of this whole, and the way of being part of this whole is this political poem. This city, heavenly city to be sure, but it has — the idea of city always implies some human contact, some human idea of what we call usually the polis, the political reality.
Let me just add something else which is interesting in terms of Dante’s imagination. We have a compression of images from the pastoral tradition. The garden and the idea of city, and we do know that when you read pastoral literature you really have, usually have this juxtaposition, it’s called, between the urbs which you know is — the term’s for the urban now for the city from the rus, the rustic, a division between gardens and cities. This is the economy on which pastoral literature, eclogues, bucolic, ideals, idyllic literature is usually based on, on this divergence between the two modes of the imagination. I live in the city and then I want to go down into the villa. I want to go down to the country; it’s as if there were two — a kind of — almost a hint of a schizophrenic existence that you have with Roman and Greek poetry.
What Dante’s doing is literally shattering that distance between the two modes. In an eschatological perspective, in a perspective which is at the end, city and garden come together. It is literally a change, both in the idea of the city and in the idea of the garden. They are not two divergent modes of the imaginatio; they really cohere within one. You see what the point is. The point is that no matter what Dante is touching with his imagination, all the oppositions, all systems of contrarieties, of contrary forms, he tries to always bring them together in a kind of concordance, discordant made concordant again, which is the idea of music. A kind of a harmonization of all these oppositions and everything that he has — we so far have been seeing.
But now there is a further image which sort of complicates the problem. “ ‘See our seats so filled that few souls are now wanting there.’” This is a kind of line which is really strange because it’s implying that for all of us late comers there is no room, there is not even standing room there for us — the places have all been taken, almost all been taken. Very few, the implication is, are going to be saved. Then one can make this claim, it follows, because he really believes that this is a kind of — that he has what we can an apocalyptic vision. That the end of the world is near, therefore, he can say only a few seats are available, or which is really the way I think, because I don’t think that Dante really has an apocalyptic vision. That is to say, what I mean by an apocalyptic vision, apocalypse means visionary, he is a visionary, apocalyptic means, implies the imminence of the ending of history.
I don’t think that he has that idea at all. A man who keeps thinking as he does about the renewal or the corruption of institutions, the hope that some intervention will come from other human beings or from — of history, a king for instance, or an intervention from the world of grace, cannot really have a sense of the imminent consummation of history. You see what I mean? You wouldn’t be worried so much about renewing the institutions. This line is to — can be taken to mean, and I think has to be taken to mean, is that scene from the perspective of eternity as he is really there are a few seats. You see what I’m saying? If you see it in terms of the totality of time then they are not — a lot of time has been — has already passed by.
Then he will continue — a haunting image I think that sort of gives all this talk of this — my reflections on city, whether Dante has an apocalyptic imagination or not an apocalyptic imagination, look at how this absence, “And in that great chair on which thy eyes are held by the crown that is already set over it,” an empty seat, it’s taken, a crown is on it, a king is going to be sitting, that’s what I call a haunting image of royal absence and royal presence because you’ll see in a moment what it is. “Before thou shalt sup at these nuptials shall rest the soul, which shall be imperial below, of lofty Henry.” This is the emperor who actually died in 1313 whom Dante was hoping would come down to Italy from the Holy Roman Empire; come down to Italy to set Italy straight. That is to say, to placate the violence between the cities, the whole history of Italian communes, but he had died prematurely and he’s expected in heaven.
You see there is a way in which the king, the emperor is beatified, his seat in heaven is going to be assured, and yet implying that somehow the violence in history is going to be, for the time being, continued and prolonged, so a political interest, a political — the keeping, the holding on to Dante’s own fantasies of political renewals that gives therefore the sort of — that tempers all views that Dante may have, an apocalyptic imagination. “The blind greed that bewitches you has made you like the infant,” etc., and then Dante goes on, the other great problem.
The canto ends with a final denunciation about Simon Magus and the reference to Inferno XIX. Dante’s at the height of the universe, he can’t forget Simon Magus, Inferno XIX, and Boniface XVIII, “gets his dues, and shall make him of Anagni go,” Boniface XVIII, “deeper still.” Remember how they were punished being upside down in the ditches, and the flames of fire, Pentecostal flames of fire, on the soles of their feet, this is the way they have been twisting around, turning around the gift of prophecy.
Chapter 3. Canto XXXI: Farewell to Beatrice [00:19:06]
Let me just go onto Canto XXXI; it’s really a farewell to Beatrice, and I thought that we expected so much her arrival in Canto XXX of Purgatorio; we should see how the farewell takes place. Canto XXXI, lines 40 and following, page 449, “I who had come to the divine from the human,” this is Dante speaking for himself, “to the eternal from time, and from Florence to a people just and sane, with what amazement must I have been filled! Truly between that and the joy I was content to hear nothing and to remain silent. And like a pilgrim who is refreshed in the temple of his vow as he looks around and hopes sometime to tell of it again, so, taking my way up through the living light, I carried my eyes through the ranks, now up, now down,” he looks around to see whom he sees and he actually will go on listing the number of blessed, the women and men that he sees. “I carried my eyes through the ranks, now up, now down and now looking round again. I saw faces, persuasive to charity,” used to charity, “adorned with Another’s light, and with their own smiles.”
These blessed are blessed because they are — there’s some other in them. They are themselves and there is another in them too, “and with their own smiles, and every movement graced with dignity. Already my glance had taken in the whole general form of Paradise,” what I called earlier, the vision of the whole, the totality that he manages to — gazes at. “But had not yet dwelt on any part of it, and I turned with new-kindled eagerness to question my Lady of things in which my mind was in suspense.”
We have now a revision, a rehashing, if you wish, of the scene of Virgil’s disappearance when Beatrice is just about to come. Dante saw all stricken by and seized by tremor at the approaching of Beatrice that he turns around to try to see and get comfort from Virgil and Virgil had vanished. We have now a kind of variant of that same vanishing act. “One thing I intended, and another encountered me: I thought to see Beatrice, and I saw an old man,” Bernard of Clairvaux, the great enemy of the so-called of the philosophers, but I don’t want to get into that. “clothed like that glorious company. His eyes and his cheeks were suffused with a gracious gladness, and his aspect was of such kindness as befits a tender father. And ‘Where is she?’ I said in haste; and he replied: ‘To end thy longing Beatrice sent me from my place; and if thou look up to the third circle from the highest tier thou shall see her again, in the throne her merits have assigned to her.’ Without answering, I lifted up my eyes and saw her where she made for herself a crown, reflecting from her the eternal beams. From the highest region where it thunders no mortal eye is so far, were it lost in the depth of the sea, was my sight there from Beatrice; but to me it made no difference, for her image came down to me undimmed by aught between. ‘O Lady,” here he goes on now, “in whom my hope has its strength and who didst bear for my salvation to leave thy footprints in Hell, of all the things that I have seen I acknowledge the grace and the virtue to be from that power and from thy goodness. It is thou who hast drawn me from bondage into liberty.” The great theme of liberty that we have been discussing, especially in Purgatory found also — it’s sealed here in the presence of Beatrice, etc.
This is now — he turns to the faithful Bernard. You may remember that Canto XXIX ended with Beatrice very worried that Dante has been expounding. Remember Canto XXVIII, XXIX there had been the exposition about angels, the exposition about creation, creation as an act of God’s love, the ordering and the new ranks of angelic — the angelic choir. Then Beatrice gets very upset because the whole issue seemed to be to her a way of thinking more about the appearance of things rather than the truth of things. You remember that she attacks the human beings on Earth; they do nothing else than go after false appearances. We are swayed by false appearances so that the question was, what does she mean that the truth is? She was saying let’s get back to some — let’s bring some kind of sense of the real back into play in all of this, some sense of the truth value what we are saying back into this representation. That was the way Canto XXIX stopped, with Beatrice suspicious of appearances.
Dante now gets into Canto XXX and XXXI and goes back to the question of appearances, and says to Beatrice that the appearance is exactly what — the image is exactly what he has preserved, that he is going to preserve of her. Two things, therefore, have to be followed from this. Are you with me in all of these issues? Dante’s saying here, in the encounter with Beatrice, “Without answering, I lifted my eyes and saw her where she made herself a crown, reflecting from her the eternal beams.” This is the language of image and the language of reflections.
What Dante’s saying to Beatrice is that we are always in a world of images, and that somehow the image is the locus of the sacredness, but the image is also has its own fleeting quality. The journey of Dante is to go between the images and the essences. Now he’s preparing for the final leap. This is to say that Dante’s journey was not a journey to Beatrice; it’s going to be a journey to God. Beatrice is the stepping stone for the pilgrim’s entering the experience of the beatific vision.
This is what I want to emphasize, and in fact, Canto XXXI, ends with, “Like one that comes,” line 113, “Like one that comes, perhaps, from Croatia, to see our Veronica,” Veronica is an allusion to one of the pious women, who during the Calvary ascent of Jesus, is said to have wiped his face and the face of Jesus remained imprinted on her veil and so that Veronica became — it’s the name of the woman Veronica, but it was also understood in the whole of Middle Ages as vera icona, this was the kind of phony, to be sure etymology given to the Veronica. It was — Dante’s evoking now the pilgrims who come to — who go to Rome from Croatia to see the true image left imprinted on the veil of the Veronica. This is where Dante himself is. He is like one of those pilgrims who is still seeing the image but wants to move beyond images, wants to go and see what lies behind it.
The journey of the Divine Comedy is the journey within that in tercets, between images and essences so to speak. This is Veronica, “and whose old hunger is never satisfied, but he says within himself, as long as it is shown: ‘My Lord Jesus Christ, very God, was this then your true semblance?’, such was I, gazing on the living charity of him who in this world tasted by contemplation of the peace.” That’s how we can — we are ready to get into Canto XXXIII which is the final canto and the final vision.
Chapter 4. Canto XXXIII: The Final Vision; The Journey and Its Telling [00:28:16]
Let’s see how Dante carries that off and let me begin with saying a couple of things. There are a number of dramas that will go — are going to be unfolding in Canto XXXIII. The first drama is that of the pilgrim who wants to see the face of God, wants to see the face of God, wants to preserve the wit so that he can be able to come back and retell the story, tell the story, write the poem as a witnessing to the vision he has had. So it’s a way of thinking about the relationship between vision and language, if you want to say it in a very general way. How are the two related to each other? The real — the other drama is how is he going to remember? Can he remember? Number four, what does he really see? These are the number of problems that he faces.
The poem begins with — Canto XXXIII begins with a prayer, a prayer to the Virgin Mary, or the Virgin Mother, and it’s going to be constructed through a series of paradoxes as you can see, Virgin Mother, daughter of your son, paradox is about time, paradox is about all sorts of reversals of the natural order, “lowly and exalted more than any creature,” a way of using paradoxes that challenge the rational understanding of the world. This is not going to be a rational representation of what Dante will see, “fixed goal of the eternal council, thou art she who didst so ennoble human nature, that its Maker did not disdain to be made its making. In thy womb,” Dante goes on now to that motif of birth with which we began talking from Inferno I, when we discussed Virgil.
This idea of the beginning, the idea of a beginning of birth as an image of beginning, and an image of nature becoming an event; the idea of nature becoming a historical event, a possibility of a historical event. “In thy womb was rekindled the love by whose warmth this flower,” this flower really means the whole of the mystical rose that he has just seen, so the mystical rose begins in — it’s contained in the womb of Mary, “has bloomed thus in the eternal peace.” It’s another way of making this idea of — I could gloss this image of the womb as — in terms of this is the immense sphere of the mystic, within which — the immense sphere within which the finite and the infinite come together and meet. The immense sphere, it’s a circle; the immense sphere whose center is nowhere, or whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere. That’s the way that he is understanding, he’s explaining this motif of the incarnation.
What is crucial about this image, I believe, is first of all, the humanization of the divine. This is clearly the divine that becomes divine because it enters history and experiences all that the human beings experience. The other element that, I think, that Dante is pushing forth is the feminization of the divine in the sense that here the divine has become the child of a woman, and the woman is therefore part, they subsume this part of this divine. A kind of feminine — I don’t call it feminist because I don’t really know what that is but the feminine — and I don’t mean it as in — it’s a true statement I don’t know, but it’s a feminine, a theology of a feminine element in God. “Here thou art for us the noonday torch of charity, and below among mortals thou art living spring of hope.”
And then the second stylistic theme here is the repetition, the iterative mode, “Thou, Lady,” skip a few lines, and “Thy loving-kindness in thee is mercy, in thee pity, in thee great bounty, in thee is joined all goodness there in any creature.” What is the point of this iterativeness of — the style of repetitions of anaphoric style? I think one of the reasons, you may think of others, but one of the reasons is a language that is falling upon itself as a way of giving consistency to itself. The poem at this point is really dealing with vanishing traces, things that cannot quite be pinpointed or placed within logical propositions, and therefore, the language becomes incantatory as if it were an effort to create a kind of — a mood, a sort of — creating a reality through this mood induced through these iterations.
Then the prayer of Bernard continues, “This man,” and in the pilgrim line 30, 20, “This man, who from the nethermost pit of the universe to here has seen one by one the lives of the spirits, now begs of thee by thy grace for such power that with his eyes he may rise still higher towards the last salvation; and I,” this is extraordinary. We are in Paradise, so far, Dante strays so far from the temptations of mystical writing, which ends up always evoking identities, representable identities; Dante distinguishes very carefully until the end between I and he. There are individualities in this Paradise of Dante’s imagination, “And I,” this is Bernard, “who never burned from my own vision more than I do for his.” See the differences, I and him, “offer to thee all my prayers, and pray that they come not short, that by thy prayers thy wilt disperse for him every cloud of his mortality so that the supreme joy may be disclosed to him.”
That’s the first prayer to the Virgin. “This too I pray to thee, Queen, who canst what thou wilt, that thou keep his affections pure after so great a vision.” The first danger to the pilgrim is that he may be losing literally his mind. The vision of God may — a face may obliterate his powers of — this vision may obliterate the powers and the affections. “Let thy guardianship control his human impulses. See Beatrice and so many of the blessed who clasp their hands for my prayers.” This is an extraordinary vision. The whole of the cosmos is praying for Dante — the pilgrim’s beatific visions. “The eyes by God beloved and reverenced… and I, who was drawing near to the end of all desires.”
I want to emphasize this, even this language of desire, up to know the poem has been — can be called literally — we’ve been calling it so many things, a poem of hope, a poem of peace, it’s a poem of exile, and poem of desire and the poem of longing. The prayer is the mode of this longing. Prayer, you address someone you don’t see hoping that you can be heard and that your prayer can be answered is a desire for a response. This is really the mode of Dante’s theology. At the heart of his theological universe, there is a sense of constant longing and a sense of being not quite where he wants to be. “I who was drawing near to the end of all desires,” I emphasize and I prepare you in case I would not make a point about that. Very soon the language of Dante will change from desire to enjoyment.
He starts getting the sense of this sweetness and this idea of the fullness of his pleasures. A desire will shift into joy very soon, “ended perforce the ardour of my craving. Bernard signed to me with a smile to look upward, but already of myself I was doing what he wished; for my sight, becoming pure, was entering more and more through the beam of the lofty light which in itself is true.” Now the first defeat; Dante starts recording the forgetfulness of this experience. “From that moment,” first of all, “my vision was greater than our speech, which fails at such a sight.” How are you going to make a failure become a success? How — from the fact that he is not going to be able to see will become somehow a mode of his own, not just a humility because it would be a success in terms of the pilgrim’s own humility, but in terms of the writing of the poem. Now the poem will be a different way of understanding the poem, not just going to be a representation of plentitude of vision, but until the end the statement of a longing for a vision that may come.
The memory too fails to such excess. Excess in Italian is really the language — I don’t know, probably English is best, etymologically it’s the same thing, but in Italian it’s outrage. Outrage in the sense in which with resonance that there is something too bold and over — a kind of hyperbolic, an overreaching because that’s really what it is. An excess is an overreaching, “Like him that sees in a dream and after the dream the passion wrought by it remains and the rest returns not to his mind, such am I; for my vision almost wholly fades, and still there drops within my heart the sweetness that was born from it.” That’s all he’s going to be left with. This sweetness that gathers in the chamber of the heart. This has been a journey of the heart, because as I have been saying to you in a number of ways in the past few weeks, is that the journey to God is a journey of the mind, but it’s a journey of the heart. You have to — you will come to know God through this idea of the heart.
But also, you know, that Dante’s clearly punning on the notion of what memory is, because to him memory is connecting to those with a heart. What can I remember? What can I recall within me? What is this — the only thing that memory can retrieve is this sweetness of the heart. Such a — then he continues, “Thus the snow loses its imprint in the sun.” The image of the liquefaction of shapes, the loss of shapes, water that had been crystallized just dissolves, and then an image which brings us back to the Aeneid, the third book of the Aeneid, “thus in the wind on the light leaves the Sybil’s oracle was lost.” This is the idea when Aeneas goes to the Sybil’s cave to find out about the future, his future, and as the Sybil opens the gates the wind comes and will go on scattering all the leaves kept within it. It’s the impossibility of reading, the impossibility of deciphering the actual leaves, like sort of messiness and confusion, that’s exactly the state of mind in which he seems to find himself.
“O Light Supreme,” Dante now shifts to another mode on his own, and now in a sequence of prayers. “O Light Supreme that art so far exalted above mortal conceiving, grant to my mind again a little of what thou appearedst, and give my tongue,” this is the kind of — the prayer of — this is the prayer of that language may, I am missing a page here — this is the prayer that somehow, language now may triumph over him, over the threats of forgetfulness. Forgetfulness threatens him. Why am I insisting so much? “That it may leave but a gleam of thy glory to the people yet to come.” What Dante is saying is that his poem is meant for the future, that in effect, he’s envisioning a future. This is not a poem written for him, it’s not a poem written for his contemporaries, it’s a positing of a future. That is to say, the opening up to, and that’s what work will do, a work of art invents and prepares a future, so more than an act of remembrance, and the commemoration, the poem will be what we call it, a prolepsis, a proleptic move, a movement forward into the future.
Why do I talk so much about memory? Dante seems to be becoming now utopian, lend me some of your glory, let me see your glory so that a spark of it may be left in my text, so that the future will understand it and will see, and some fire can come from that spark. Now why does then language — his insistence on memory? Because that’s the answer, he talks about retrieving the memory of what he has seen because the actual constitution of his poem, he can only his write his poem, he can only have some authority for his voice if he remembers what he has seen. In order to ground the poem in the notion into the vision of God, that therefore, will authorize him to say all of the things he has been saying about the living and the dead, the powerful and the not so powerful, the historical figures and the cultural figures of the past, it’s crucial for him to remember so that memory becomes the actual foundation of his representation. He has to bring it back, give it a presence to what has gone on in his experience. Do you see what I mean?
He’s forced to go on remembering and yet he cannot. How is he going to — where does his authority come from then? If he can’t remember, and he says that he can remember very little, only the sweetness that has been gathering in his heart, where does it come from? This is the third — fourth challenge of the poem. “I think,” he continues, “from the keenness I endured of the living ray, that I should have been dazzled if my eyes had been turned from it; and I remember that for this cause I was the bolder to sustain it until I reached with my gaze the Infinite Goodness.”
Once again, breaking the narrative and turning into the meditative, a prayer, sort of begging that the divine may reveal itself and remain with him. “O abounding grace, by which I dared to fix my look on the Eternal Light so long that I spent all my sight upon it. In its depth.” That’s what he sees. “I saw that it contained,” the cosmos as a book. That’s it, the whole world I called it last time, a cosmos book, the cosmos as a book. That is to say, as a parchment maybe, but he uses also the image of a book which is different from a volume, the volume is rolled up. The book is the one which we have a kind of square structure. The two together, as a kind of allegory wrapped up. “I think I saw… in its depth I saw that it contained, bound by love in one volume,” now that was the word Dante had used for Virgil at the beginning of the poem. A way to give continuity to his quest and his questions begins with the volume of Virgil’s book and that Virgil’s book becomes a pre-figuration of the book of the cosmos that he sees bound together.
“That which is scattered in leaves through the universe, substances and accidents and their relations as it were fused together in such a way that what I tell of it is a simple light. I think I saw the universal form of this complex,” of this compound, “because in telling of it I feel my joy expand.” Now is the retrieval of — or rather the recovery of this state of mind, which is one of joy, which excludes absence. Desire has to be replaced by joy because desire always entails an absence. We long for what we do not have, at least at that moment. Desire is always tied to an experience of lacking. Joy is tied to an experience of plentitude of a procession somehow at this point, and now another mythological figure that I want to focus on. “A single moment makes for me deeper oblivion,” you see now the dialectics between memory that fails and oblivion does its memory, and efforts at remembering and the reality of forgetfulness.
This was the dialectic between the two metaphors together, “A single moment makes for me deeper oblivion than five and twenty centuries upon the enterprise that made Neptune wonder at the shadow of the Argo.” What an extraordinary image. Single moment, it’s clearly an image to say that I forgot more in one second, so time doesn’t exist here. It exists in Dante, Dante is still being human, he stills has time, time is — at least he can only — his life can only be measured by time, but he’s in the presence of the eternal instant, but a single instant he says literally, I’m just glossing this, a single instance made me forget more than what we have forgotten in twenty-five centuries from the experience of the Argo, allusion to the Argonauts, another mythological counter to Dante’s own journey. They went for the — Jason went for the golden fleece, Dante’s going for the beatific vision, another little connection to Canto I of Paradiso starts with a reference to the story of the Argonauts, the daring of the Argonauts, and now Dante is closing the circle here once again.
There’s a further — something else that in the story of the Argonauts as Dante retrieves it, is that the guard is now below, Neptune is in the depth, and Dante is now thinking of the divine as being also caught in its own unreachable, unfathomable depth, which is a height, but you see there are two different perspectives. More importantly, here Dante sees Neptune wondering at the daring of man, just as Neptune is wondering at the daring of the Argonauts; the implication is that he too has had this kind of daring that the divine, that God may be wondering at his own achievement. What is crucial is the change of perspective from the depth of underneath the sea to the depth up in the sky, up in the heavens for Dante’s God.
Then he continues, “Thus my mind,” Dante’s so careful — I wish we had time about this to show you. I mean I know that there are some graduate students who may want to think about this whole issue of how Dante’s lexicon about mind, intellect, reason, he’s so carefully calibrated and differentiated; mind is the faculty of visionariness. It’s also the root word of measure, as you know; Latin etymology is — the medieval minds are always taken with the discovery of the root words. The word measure comes from the immense, for instance, comes from the word for mind. It is as if he’s still keeping a sense of the measure for himself. He’s still aware of his own particular city. He’s not lost in the immensity of what’s around him, “Thus my mind, all rapt, was gazing, fixed still and intent, and ever enkindled with gazing. At that light one becomes such that it is impossible for him ever to consent that he should turn from it to another sight; for the good which is the object of the will is all gathered in it, and apart from it that is defective which there is perfect.”
Now language fails, memory fails; the second failure is that of speech. “Now my speech will come more short even or what I remember than an infant’s.” You know that the word infant, which usually we take that to be a child, it literally means the child who cannot speak. You refer; you use the word infant for someone who is pre-, as it were babbling even, that’s the infant really. “Fari,” in Latin means to speak, “And infant’s who yet bathes his tongue at the breast. Not that the living light at which I gazed had more than a single aspect — for it is ever the same as it was before — but that my sight gaining strength as I looked, the one sole appearance, I myself changing was, for me, transformed. In the profound and clear ground of the lofty light appeared to me,” that’s the vision that he has, “three circles of three colours and the same extent, and the one seemed reflected by the other as rainbow by rainbow, and the third seemed fire breathed forth equally from the one and the other. O how scant is speech and how feeble to my conception!”
It ends with an unavoidable statement of failure, a failure of memory so that the memory can be forgetful memory, and the failure of speech unable to contain the plentitude of what he sees. Vision exceeds language, exceeds speech, there is more to the text Dante is saying, there’s more to my experience of the world than what I can say in words. There is — not everything is reducible or containable within the syllables of our language. “This, to what I saw, is such that it is enough to call it little. O Light Eternal.” Once again, “that alone abidest us in Thyself,” a divine that is now caught within itself and is self contained. Look at this, “In Thyself alone and knowest Thyself, and, known to Thyself, and knowing lovest and smiles on Thyself.”
This is the kind of inner and closure or circularity of the divine. In Italian, I have to read to you in Italian so you see line 123 — line 125 maybe, O luce etterna che sola in te sidi. “Sola,” only you understand yourself, t’intendi, e da te intelletta e intendente te ami e arridi! You see how the words keep repeating and falling on themselves to convey the idea of the self-enclosed nature, now there is something that always escapes, a grasp and escapes Dante’s. There’s some — for all of the diffusiveness of God in the creation there is an element of the divine that literally is absolutely self-transcendent, just transcends itself completely. “That circling which, thus begotten, appeared in Thee as reflected light when my eyes dwelt on it for a time, seemed to me, within it and in its own colour, painted with our likeness.”
He sees our own, as he calls it, our effigy line 131, “nostra affige,” our likeness. He doesn’t say “my likeness,” it’s a poem therefore that at the end seems to want to retrieve the commonality of the common likeness that we have. What he sees is the incarnation, the human image within God, because in God there is also the human since we are — if you agree with the principle that we are creations of God and the way we were created in His image, so therefore there’s something human also within the divine, and then he continues, “Like the geometer who sets all his mind to the squaring of the circle,” a famous mathematical surd in the Middle Ages, meaning one of the impossible paradoxes of how do you square the circle, and the geometers will go on reflecting on it and that’s what Dante — where Dante places himself. The science of measurement stumbles against this paradox that the geometer — and fails.
“Like the geometer who sets all his mind to the squaring of the circle and for all his thinking does not discover the principle he needs, such was I at a strange sight. I wished to see how the image was fitted to the circle and how it has its place there; but my own wings,” the flight of the soul, the wings of the soul, the platonic idea that we go on developing wings, of the two Eros allows us to unfold our wings for the sight. It’s also a pun, I think, on Dante’s own name. We have been talking about, “were not sufficient for that, had not my mind been smitten by a flash wherein came its wish. Here power failed the high phantasy.”
How many fantasies are there? There are three, the highest form of the imagination, that’s what he means that the — a pretty romantic distinction, I mean, coloriage between imagination and fantasy. Dante follows — Dante belongs in that same line of thinking, “But now my desire and will, like a wheel that spins with even motion, were revolved by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” That’s the end of the poem which ends exactly the way — with Dante doing two things. One seeing the Prime Mover and understanding the Prime Mover, not the way he did at the beginning of Paradiso I, but love. The definition of God as the Prime Mover, you remember, seemed to have a limitation for Dante as the Prime Mover moves the universe, and somehow then detaches, disengages himself from it.
Now Dante sees that primal, the motion as a motion of love, the universe as a universe of love, but calls the world together and prevents it from falling apart is exactly this power. Prevents it from chaos, it’s this power called love so the whole universe is in motion. Love that moves the sun and the other stars, and the only thing stable, the only thing that makes it cohere is this love. By using this same language here of love that moves the sun and the other stars, it’s a universe of love, we understand that. Dante uses, symmetrically, the same phrase, the stars of the sun and the other stars in Inferno — at the end of Inferno and at the end of Purgatorio. Fair, remember that, and then now I was cleansed enough to come back and look at the stars, the end of Purgatorio. Then now Virgil and I finally managed to come back and see the stars.
Now Dante says, the love that moves the sun and the other stars, what he’s really doing is placing himself immediately with this line right back on earth. He’s here with us looking up at the stars. It’s the line that shifts, allows him to shift from the moment of this vision that he has, a vision that is the vision of the incarnation at the end. That is to say his own — our own likeness, that’s all he sees, that’s all he remembers, and then comes back to earth. But it also means that this line places Dante exactly in Inferno I and this is the story of the poem.
The story of the poem — we have been reading the poem as an account of an experience of a pilgrim who goes from the dark wood in Inferno I to the beatific vision, whatever he remembers of it, and then comes back to tell us about it. But in effect we are also discovering in this reading of the poem, is that by the end of the poem Dante says, now my journey starts, the real journey was this poem here. We are in a sense, by that last line, caught in the circle of Dante’s telling, in the drama of Dante’s story. We read the poem which is a kind of journey for us, then we read because we want to tell our own story, and then we want to go on re-reading it once again. Do you see what I mean? It’s a sort of, if you wish, witty even, way for Dante to say this poem will hold you, and it’s meant to hold you, and I wish it holds you. You can see the poem as both a journey and the telling of the journey endlessly like the movement of the sun and the other stars. This is the end of the poem.
Chapter 5. Question and Answer [01:00:31]
Let me see, I’m sure that there are questions. I raised some issues and we have a minute — a few minutes and I’ll tell you then later what we’re going to do next time. Please.
Student: Can you talk about this line where he’s — at line 52 [Canto XXXIII], “Bernard signed to me with a smile to look upward…the lofty light which in itself is true. There are few things going on here about light and truth and I’m wondering — the light seems to be pure all and what’s happening is that Dante’s vision becomes — that the faculty improves enough to appreciate this and that his sight somehow fails and then he has failure of memory. I don’t know, light is the truth, it no longer illuminates but isn’t very obvious to the truth at this point. I’m not sure it seemed like there was a lot going on and I’m not quite —
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Okay, the question is in reference to lines — line 52 of Paradiso XXXIII where Dante says, “And I who was drawing near to the end of all desires,” that we understand, ” ended perforce the ardour of my craving. Bernard signed to me with a smile to look upward, but already of myself I was doing what he wished;” that’s fairly, at least literally clear, “for my sight, becoming pure,” that’s also clear, Dante’s experience in the final poems can be reduced to a refinement of the faculty of vision, physical but also clearly spiritual. “Becoming pure was entering more and more through the beam of the lofty light which in itself is true” meaning that — I think this means, and this is also a footnote of yours, it’s the footnote is too the famous phrase, “In thy light we see the light.” The idea that — you are quite right that it’s not a light that reveals an object being a true object; that’s really what you — the point that you are making. That’s absolutely true, I would agree with that, but it’s really a statement about the light which in itself is — contains a light. It’s this kind of — that’s the meaning of the biblical phrase, “In thy light we see the light,” it’s not because of your light I see the world, I see myself or whatever, in thy light I see the light. The light is the light of truth, that’s what he’s saying. It’s the light of truth in and of itself, the light of truth. Yes, it’s a light in itself. That was your point or not?
Student: Kind of, I’m just a little confused what the function of light is.
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: What the function of light here? Well, the — I can give you a little bit of the idea of what we call the metaphysics of light in Paradiso. Dante begins with the idea that what we know of the divine is light, a light that — the power of which and the limitation of which is exactly like the dark in the sense that the light reveals to us the divine, but at the same time hides the origin of the light. You cannot see through the light. That’s really the understanding of Dante in Paradiso I saying, “The glory of Him who moves all things,” the glory is an image really means light. The light of Him, who moves all things, is what I really saw.
Now Dante’s seeing the origin of that light, that which has remained forever invisible, exactly the way the dark has. You may say that some of our imagination is that we are in the dark. We don’t know the origins of anything; we don’t know the causes that lie beyond our perceptions. We don’t know the origin of the dark, we may even go like mystics believing that the dark is the image, is the cover for light. If there is a dark there must be a light somewhere else, in fact that dark may occasionally be removed. The worst thing about the mystical language of the divine in terms of light is that the light itself, which makes all things visible, remains in and of itself impenetrable in its origin to the human eye. Now Dante sees it, that’s the idea of the true light, “In thy light we see the light.” Is that a little —
Student: The beatific vision then is not exactly —
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: This is not a beatific vision. He has seen a moment of light and the origin of the light, that’s still not God. The beatific — the only thing that he remembers of the beatific vision is some — he doesn’t say. Some sweetness that has gathered in his heart, and what he then sees beyond the general form, he sees a number of things. The general form of the cosmos, which is this conjunction of circle and square, book and volume, if you want to visualize it in terms of — I like that image because it really implies the Word. It’s the theology of the Word that seems to come out of that.
Then the other things that he sees is our likeness, i.e., he sends us back to Genesis 1, or the creation of man as told in Genesis. “Let me us make man in our image and likeness,” so here’s our likeness. You are talking now about the light and the meaning about this light is that the light — what does it mean to say that the light is true? Not because he reveals and dissipates the shadows that would be one way, one function of the light, the like the light, the light of the mind, the light of the sun, whatever. Because of that, the artificial light, but there is a way in which Dante is now thinking about what is called metaphysics of light.
What is the light in and of itself? The light — Dante by the way, if you really want to know this, Dante distinguishes between the word for light and the word for lamp, lume, luce, and so on light, lamp and so on and a number of scientific distinctions. Here he is talking about the vision of the origin of light, “In thy light we see the light,” that’s the meaning of the phrase.
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